2016 Hall of Fame Nominee

Brenda Gaver

East Valley High School
Spokane, WA
2016 Finalist from PNCFL

The first time I traveled to a Spanish-speaking country was during my senior year of high school. I participated in a trip that was organized by a local high school. We landed in Mexico City, and after checking into our hotel, went to sleep since we needed to be at breakfast at 6 AM. Breakfast was interesting, to say the least. I did not like anything that was served and was surprised that we weren’t having what I considered to be “breakfast food” (onions, tomatoes, peppers, and “green stuff” just didn’t appeal to my 17-year-old palette). Had I been exposed to other cultures, I may have appreciated this new opportunity.

After spending two days in Mexico City, we traveled to Cuernavaca, where we lived with a family. This was my first experience having to rely on another language to communicate. Nobody that lived in the household spoke English. I also quickly learned that the daily schedule and customs were very different than what I had grown up with.

I frequently think about that experience when I plan my lessons and (re)design my curriculum (isn’t curriculum design an ongoing process?). It is important that students understand that “their” way is not “the” way to do things. It is also important to point out that not all Spanish-speakers have the same customs, traditions and celebrations. My students are often surprised when I explain that in Spain, the concept of “afternoon” stretches until dinnertime, which may be as late as 10:00 PM. This is another shock to them – the fact that Spaniards eat dinner so late in the evening.

By integrating culture into daily lessons, rather than stopping every once in a while to touch on the topic, students become more culturally aware. Culture becomes a daily topic of conversation, rather than an isolated lesson. This is where online language classes fall short. It is impossible to gain cultural experiences through software. Students need to interact with one another and communicate in the target language.

I also wonder why so few school districts offer foreign language opportunities to younger students. It just does not make sense to begin to learn a new language in high school. What would happen if we decided that students could not learn math until the ninth grade? It would be impossible for them to do so many things. The same is true when we wait until the ninth grade to teach a second language. In other countries, students learn second and third and languages by the time they reach high school age.

Finally, I believe that language classes should be built around themes, rather than grammatical points. It took me a few years to figure this out, and it has changed my teaching immensely. I used to plan my scope and sequence around grammar. Now I plan using “I can” statements. This helps the students understand the purpose behind lessons and when they can easily see where they fall on the proficiency scale.